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Duffels for Kids helping Florida’s foster kids trade up garbage bags

The call came mid-afternoon. Brandon Burke had to leave the home of a family friend in Fort Lauderdale before the end of the night, to be placed in his sixth foster home in Lauderhill.

So Burke, 17 at the time, went to his bedroom and began to dump his life’s belongings into a large, black garbage bag — wrestling and karate trophies, khakis, sneakers. He left the home, bag in hand.

For Burke, and so many of the children in Florida’s foster care system, this was a heartbreakingly normal way to move.

“So often the move is rushed. There isn’t any time to prepare and you don’t really have luggage, so you just grab a bag, get your stuff and move to the next place,’’ said Burke, 18, a high school senior who aged out of the system in June. “Looking back, I felt like I was garbage.”

It’s that feeling, whether painfully recent or a haunted old memory, driving a new statewide campaign to make sure foster kids across the state are given a free monogrammed duffel bag as they transition to a new temporary or permanent home. In launching Duffels for Kids, the Florida State Foster/Adoptive Parent Association joins several other organizations across the nation working to replace makeshift luggage with something that feels a little more permanent. The first fundraiser will be held May 18.

“When they come to us, they have already had so much taken away from them, things that are familiar to them,’’ said LaShaun Wallace, director of programs for the association, a volunteer group with members around Florida. “This is just our small way of trying to give them something they can call their own. Not something used; something new and all theirs. We don’t want our kids using garbage bags. It sends the wrong message.’’

The organization, based in West Palm Beach, hopes to raise at least $20,000 to purchase the duffel bags — at a discount — and distribute them to the approximately 8,000 children in the system, meaning in a foster or group home. Eventually, they also want to provide bags for the additional 10,000 children in Florida Department of Children and Families-supervised relative care. So far, they have raised about $13,500. The goal is to raise all the money by the end of June. Caregivers will be able to request a duffel bag for a child by calling the association.

With the support of DCF, local foster parent associations and guardians ad litem, a Duffels for Kids Walk fundraiser will be held at Jungle Island in Miami on Saturday, May 18 during National Foster Care Month.

“We want to start with the older kids first — they have accumulated the most stuff — then get to the younger ones,’’ Wallace said.

She and her husband, Michael Wallace, are foster parents. Four years ago, they went to pick up a toddler named Brandon.

“We picked him up from an agency in Broward late one night. He was sitting in the chair with a shirt and shorts on and he had this big trash bag. We weren’t even sure what to do with it. Should we wash it and keep it? Throw it away?” she recalls. “Being a foster kid can be a scary thing, really hard on them. You want them to feel special.”

Duffels for Kids is inspired by a similar smaller program run by one of the association’s local chapters in South Miami-Dade and another program based in Indiana, founded by siblings Shifali and Sidarth Singh, who are both participating in the May 18 fundraiser. The spokeswoman for Duffel for Kids, Margaret Iuculano, brings her own experience to the program.

As a child, Iuculano was shuffled from foster home to foster home, more than a dozen times between the ages of 11 and 16 in California.

“Every time I moved, I had to pack my few belongings in a black trash bag,’’ said Iuculano, a former technology consultant. “When you are already feeling abandoned, wondering whether anyone will ever want you or care about you, that bag seals it. No, they won’t. You’re a throwaway.’’

Iuculano, 46, channeled those experiences into working with foster care children and in 2007, founded Angels for Foster Kids.

For Felixson Beatrice, one of his worst moments as a foster care child came one afternoon last spring. His mentor was picking him up to go to a Florida DCF office in Broward. He gathered his stuff into three trash bags: jeans, T-shirts, track cleats.

“I was walking and dragging the bags and they broke. All my stuff fell out into the streets. I felt like a bum,’’ said Beatrice, 18, who aged out of the foster system in September. “Nobody should have to feel like that.’’